“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” apparently isn’t such a secret any more. The sequel to last year’s record-setting blockbuster fantasy film, perhaps the year’s most-anticipated movie, is scheduled for U.S. release Friday. But Internet movie piracy Web sites are brimming with news that the film is already making its way around the Internet. Warner Bros. confirmed it had received reports of the piracy, but declined Wednesday to comment on their veracity. Such Internet pre-releases are becoming so commonplace that both pirates and movie studios are beginning to expect them.
THE HUBBUB BEGAN Saturday, when a group calling itself “Under the Influence” announced release of a pirated copy, a full week before the movie was supposed to hit U.S. theaters. According to the group, the pirating of Potter combined old-fashioned movie theft techniques with Internet-age compression and distribution, a combination that has movie studios increasingly alarmed.
Several pirates told MSNBC.com they had seen the movie already, and Internet chat room activity indicates the file is currently being offered by hundreds of sources and downloaded by thousands. A clip of the alleged pirate copy was viewed by MSNBC.com, and appeared to include material that Warner Bros. hasn’t released in movie trailers — suggesting pirates have been able to release film content prematurely.
On Tuesday, there was some confusion while Warner Bros. investigated the existence of the pirated copy. Reuters reported initially Warner Bros. confirmed the movie had been leaked out onto the Internet. Later, Reuters updated its initial report, saying Warner Bros had indicated it had tested an alleged pirated copy of the film, only to discover it was an empty decoy file. On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Warner Bros. said the studio wouldn’t comment on each reported piracy, saying only that the company will attempt prosecute anyone for prematurely distributing its movie.
“The illegal copying and distribution of movies is theft,” the studio said Wednesday. “Warner Bros. takes the threat of Internet piracy very seriously and employs all legal means to contain the unauthorized copying and distribution of our films on the Internet.”
The “Chamber of Secrets” copy that’s allegedly making the rounds is called a “Cam” copy, because it was created simply by a pirate who managed to bring a small DV (digital video) camera into a theater. The most likely location of the theft is the United Kingdom, where early screenings of the film began last weekend.
In its release notes, the pirate group admitted to using the DV copying method.
“Will someone please make a DV tape that lasts 161 minutes?” the group asked sarcastically, referring to the length of the new Potter movie — and the fact that they had to change tapes during the pirating.
“The illegal copying and distribution of movies is theft,” the studio said in a statement. “Warner Bros. takes the threat of Internet piracy very seriously and employs all legal means to contain the unauthorized copying and distribution of our films on the Internet.”
There’s nothing new about taking video cameras into theaters to make pirate copies of major films — but old VHS cameras were bulky, obvious and often produced a video of poor quality. But DV cameras are so small they can be easily tucked in a coat pocket while slipping into a theater.
And unlike most Internet video, which tends to be small and grainy, films pirated using DV cameras are high-quality and can be viewed at full-screen size, even on large home theaters, according to a source who regularly views pirated films.
Pirate copies are even better if a tripod is used, and it appears the “Under the Influence” pirates managed to bring a tripod into the theater to make this copy, the source said
“Compared to a DVD, on a scale of one to 10, it’s about a 7,” the source, who first heard about the Harry Potter film on Binnews.com, said.
Word of the pirate copy was quickly spreading around the Net on Tuesday, after it was mentioned by popular technology news site Slashdot.org.
The movie’s sound is still clunky, since the camera picks up audience noise and other background hiss. But even that obstacle can be foiled, the source said, if pirates manage to set up shop in the theater’s handicapped areas, which are sometimes equipped with headphones for enhanced hearing. By attaching the DV camera to those headphones, pirates can even capture stereo sound.
“It won’t be like 5.1 (enhanced audiophile) stereo, but it’s good enough for most people,” he said.
Warner Bros. spokesperson Brenda Salitz said Tuesday that she couldn’t comment on the pirated Potter film, but said there have been cases where local movie theater employees have illegally cooperated with pirates and looked the other way while a tripod is used — or even permitted filming from the projection booth. Movie studios sometimes add technology to pre-screening films that place near-invisible identifiers on copies distributed to each theater, allowing the studio to pinpoint which theater was the site of the piracy. Salitz didn’t know if the Potter films that were distributed in the United Kingdom included the technology.
A FIVE-HOUR DOWNLOAD The pirating of Potter won’t likely affect box office sales. While finding the movie on the Internet requires only some simple search skills, downloading it and viewing it are another matter. The file is some 1.5 gigabytes in size, and requires five or six hours to download over a typical high-speed DSL connection. A few other technical steps are then required to burn the file onto two separate Video Compact Discs, which can then be played in many, but not all, DVD players.
Still, the possible pirating incident strikes a nerve within Hollywood, which is already scrambling to avoid a Napster-like confrontation with technology.
On Monday, five major movie studios — including Warner Bros. — unveiled Movielink.com, a legal alternative to pirate film downloading. Users will pay typical movie rental fees to download movie files that self-destruct after a set amount of time.
The stakes are high — some analysts believe about 1 million fans watched illegal copies of “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones” over the Internet before it was released in May, and that about 2 million people in the United States regularly try to download pirated video.
And pirate video aficionados continue to get organized. VCDQuality.com is one of several Web sites which look like professional movie news Web sites — except they are devoted exclusively to pirated films. VCDQuality, for example, gathers detailed information about the various pirate film copies, and even lets viewers rate the video and sound quality of each copy. Actual copies of the film cannot be downloaded from the sites, but they often often give clear hints about where to find them.